Title: A game of tag
Feedback address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Date in Calendar: 29 June 2011
Fandom: Michiko e Hatchin
Rating: PG-13 for language
Summary: Atsuko hates always losing to Michiko.
Spoilers: For the whole anime.
Warnings: Sexist and ablist language.
Archive: Go ahead.
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Disclaimer: The characters, settings, and situations belong to the people and/or corporate entities that own them. No copyright infringement intended. All original characters, settings, and situations belong to the author.
Author's Notes: Pre-relationship.
The placid smile was really more for Michiko's benefit than for the cameras; Michiko, for her part, was smiling to herself as she looked down at the handcuffs. Atsuko wished she'd at least look sullen or defiant.
At six, or eight, or eleven, the two of them played together in attics or back yards or on the roof. Tag, hide and seek, and all the weird games Michiko came up with, although Atsuko preferred the ones where the rules didn't change.
They'd been playing hide-and-seek one afternoon in an old shed full of stacks of mouldering packing cases and soft, rotting cardboard boxes. There was a special rule this time: when you got caught you had to rub your finger on the boxes and smear the grime on your face. Atsuko's idea.
She was going to win. Michiko hadn't known about the shed until Atsuko led her there the previous day, but she agreed to let Atsuko hide first, probably because Atsuko phrased it like a dare. While she was counting, Atsuko slunk in among the boxes and moved along the wall as slowly as she dared. The best place to hide was inside one of the half-collapsed wooden boxes, almost in front of the other girl but hidden in shadow. She wanted to watch her.
As soon as she got to 100, Michiko turned around and moved in the direction she'd heard Atsuko go, almost on tiptoe. She disappeared in the shadows and then creaked softly up the rickety ladder that served as a staircase. Of course she'd think Atsuko was hiding on the second floor. Then the floorboards overhead creaked instead. She really was stupid - how could Atsuko have gone up there without being heard? There was a thump as she knocked something over, then silence for a minute or so as they both listened for approaching adults.
After five minutes, or maybe ten, Michiko crept down the not-really-staircase again. Atsuko crouched in her damp, earthy-smelling box and tried to breathe soundlessly, through her mouth. Another ten minutes, or was it five, and she began to wish they'd set a time limit. Her back itched, but she couldn't scratch; any minute now she'd hear Michiko 's voice calling for her to come out because it wasn't fun any more. Then she'd watch her friend rub mouldy cardboard on her face and be scolded for it when they got back to the orphanage. Her own clothes were covered in dust, and she really hoped that wasn't a cockroach moving in her hair - Michiko claimed they could burrow into your scalp, and that was probably a lie, butů But she hoped the other girl would call out soon, and not suddenly kick the box over and look down at her and say, Jambo. She was going to win.
After a while she saw that the shadows among the boxes had thickened and changed; they were blue now, instead of light grey. All she heard was was dripping water and scurrying rats. Her legs and back creaked like wood when she stood up - warily at first - but except for the wriggling, tangled thing behind her left ear, she was alone.
Michiko was at the orphanage when she got there, towelling her hair dry after a much-needed bath. At the sight of Atsuko and the state of her clothes, the old woman who'd been standing over her turned around and launched into a fresh lecture about ungrateful girls who would get what they deserved when they grew up if they lived that long; with the dragon's attention diverted, Michiko strolled off, smiling tiredly at Atsuko.
That same smile. There was only one way to read it: she'd won again, or at least Atsuko had lost because Michiko had decided to stop playing or to change the rules without telling her. Again.
And here she was all these years later, walking at Atsuko's side like a well-trained dog. By her own choice. If it hadn't been for the cameras and the probably thousands of people watching at home, Atsuko would have sent their heavily-armed escort away. As far as the media, and her superiors, were concerned, Atsuko had triumphed. Keeping the smile on took some effort.
"What are you doing here?" she asked when they were finally left alone.
"You didn't leave me any choice, did you? As long as I kept running you kept chasing me. I got tired of it."
"You got tired of it."
"Yes, I did." Not mocking now; as she said, she sounded tired. It had been a long day for them both - hell, a long summer. "Ten years. I couldn't get away, so I'll just get it over with."
That was practically an admission of defeat, but it wasn't enough. "And then you'll go back to the blond guy - Hiroshi? - and the girl. They really are father and daughter, aren't they? She looks just like him."
"Yeah, she does." Michiko smiled fondly down at the table between them .
"Did you ever meet her mother?"
"No. I don't know." That petty little question had hit its mark; Michiko shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance - No, I really don't care that my boyfriend had a kid with some other woman, really I don't - the exact same way she used to do as a skinny dirty brat. Atsuko still didn't know what it was about the gesture that made her so angry, but at least now she had ten years to figure it out. "This isn't what you said last time, Jambo. We're strangers now, you said. Did you forget that?"
What could she say? "You're right, I'm lousy at pretending"? "I have no pride"? "I was wrong"?
"You've won, right?" Michiko went on. "You've got me where you want me for the next ten years. You'll probably get a promotion. Why don't you gloat a little?"
"I'll gloat when I win, but today I lost. Again." It was just the truth. Like Michiko, she was too tired for much fighting or teasing. "Victory's supposed to be sweet. It doesn't count if it's handed to you."
At that Michiko looked up. "Jambo."
"Why do you keep chasing after me? You did it when we were ten, and now you're doing it again. Why chase something if you don't want it?"
"So now that I've come back and I'm choosing to stay with you for ten entire fucking years, you're unhappy? What a moron you are."
"Bitch," she muttered. There was silence for a minute, and then Atsuko went on. "Ten years, then you're free. You're going right back to your man and the little girl."
Michiko half-grinned. "You still don't get it? All right, I'm not staying ten years. I'm breaking out next week. Then you have to chase me again."